Studied Barbarity:
Johnson, Spenser, and Literary Progress

By Jack Lynch

Given at ASECS in Tucson, April 1995

Neat "meta-narratives" of literary history are a favorite target of recent critics, justly suspicious of teleological accounts of literary development. One of the most significant of these meta-narratives is the Renaissance, the progression from Medieval barbarism toward modern enlightenment, but this notion of an emergence from rudeness to refinement has come under fire from recent critics.1 The nineteenth century has so far provided much of the ammunition for this revisionary assault, and it is only natural that Schiller, Burckhardt, Pater, Hegel, and Marx should be central in the project. But Augustan critics were formulating their own ideas about the Renaissance, and we can gain a great deal of insight by looking at their approach to, say, Shakespeare or Milton. We can perhaps gain even more by looking at the problem cases. The third member of the English Renaissance poetic triumvirate, Edmund Spenser, was manifestly one of these problems, and he fit uneasily in the eighteenth century's progressive version of the Renaissance.

Spenser was much on the mind of Samuel Johnson, one of the most active and important of those developing our notion of the Renaissance -- not in any extended treatment, but in scattered comments from the 1730s through the '80s.2 Spenser's position in Johnson's thought has received little attention,3 but tugging on these Spenserian loose ends reveals a thread woven across the entire fabric of Johnson's criticism. Focusing on Johnson and his age may help us better understand the meta-narrative called the Renaissance, and focusing on the rise of the Renaissance may in turn help us better understand Johnson and his age.

The word "Renaissance" was not englished until around 1840, but the lack of the term did not prevent Johnson's contemporaries from recognizing the phenomenon. Johnson himself refers, for instance, to "the Revival of Learning in Europe,"4 and dates "the golden age of our language" from "the accession of Elizabeth."5

The metaphors used for this period show the importance of progression: "refinement," for instance, a metaphor from metallurgy, suggests that modern purity came from burning away the imperfections of the past; "cultivation" suggests our arable land once lay fallow. Impressing readers with the darkness of the Dark Ages was de rigueur for early eighteenth-century writers such as Addison, for whom the Middle Ages were a time of "Darkness and Superstition."6 Critics whose interest in Medieval authors extended beyond mere antiquarianism valued only their anticipation of what was to come. Winstanley, for instance, finds Gower "the first refiner of our English Tongue,"7 and praises Chaucer's "earnest desire to enrich and beautifie our English Tongue, which in those days was very rude and barren."8 Writers who were not part of this march from rudeness to refinement were ill regarded. Skelton, for example, is "now accounted only a Rhymer,"9 and "Whoso reads him, will find he hath a miserable, loose, rambling Style; ... yet were good Poets so scarce in his Age, that he had the good fortune to be chosen Poet Laureat."10

Like Skelton, Spenser sat uncomfortably in a tradition that valued forward-looking authors, and he was therefore a problem for the eighteenth century. Spenser, somewhere between Medieval rudeness and modern civilization, perversely refused to let go of what appeared to be vulgar errors, and could not be reconciled with progressive Augustan critical bromides. This peculiar failure of Spenser's judgment led to scathing attacks, of which Addison's dismissal is typical: "But now the mystic tale, that pleas'd of yore,/ Can charm an understanding age no more."

The lapses in Spenser's taste can be arranged under three heads: design, allegory, and language. Most upsetting is his disregard for the Aristotelian unity of action.11 The romance design, with its Ariostan entrelacement and multiple heroes, was no more appreciated by early eighteenth-century critics than by those of the Renaissance.12 Allegory, another holdover from the Dark Ages, was also scorned: as Addison complains, "The long-spun allegories fulsome grow,/ While the dull moral lies too plain below." And Spenser's metrical "imperfections" and his archaic diction were considered more perverse than charming before mid-century.

This paradox frustrated eighteenth-century critics, who found that his poetical power, for all its faults, could be neither denied nor resisted. Spenser, educated in the classics in an enlightened age, rejected many aesthetic principles the eighteenth century held not only dear but self-evident. Johnson's censure of Spenser's "studied barbarity"13 is one expression of this frustration; Hughes's account is another: "It may seem strange indeed, since Spenser appears to have been well acquainted with the best Writers of Antiquity, that he has not imitated them."14

Even Spenser's defenders had to admit he was incompatible with the Renaissance-as-progression paradigm, and this contributed to the changes in critical sensibility over the course of the century. Hughes was among the first to formulate an aesthetics different from the classical inheritance, an early stage in the development of a new Romantic sensibility. He begins with an architectural metaphor picked up from Rymer, who confesses "I have thought our Poetry of the last Age was as rude as our Architecture."15 What was censure in Rymer is praise in Hughes:

Indeed the whole Frame of it wou'd appear monstrous, if it were to be examin'd by the Rules of Epick Poetry. ... But ... the Author never design'd it by these Rules. ... To compare it therefore with the Models of Antiquity, wou'd be like drawing a Parallel between the Roman and the Gothick Architecture. ... Tho the former is more majestick in the whole, the latter may be very surprizing and agreeable in its Parts.16
This Gothic aesthetic grew, with the help of others like Warton and Hurd, over the course of the century. Spenser provided, along with Percy's ballads, a rallying-cry for a generation of Romantic critics engaged in rewriting the eighteenth century's version of literary history.
Samuel Johnson not only witnessed this change; he was a major participant in it. But he was also an important representative of the earlier sensibility, who in many ways agrees with the progressive paradigm for the Renaissance. He contrasts the na‹vet‚ of earlier ages with Elizabethan enlightenment: in the Preface to the Dictionary, for instance, he writes, "Every language has a time of rudeness antecedent to perfection."17 Likewise the Preface to Shakespeare: "Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. ... The study of those who then aspired to plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments."18 The best Renaissance writers slew these dragons, and "Sidney's work" is therefore "the boundary, beyond which I make few excursions. From the authors which rose in the time of Elizabeth, a speech might be formed adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance."19

Spenser is a major figure in this age of awakening, and Johnson's interest -- even fascination -- with Spenser was lifelong.20 In Idler 91, for instance, Johnson "consider[s] the whole succession [of poets] from Spenser to Pope, as superiour to any names which the continent can boast."21 Spenser appears nearly three thousand times in the Dictionary,22 and gives Johnson his designation for "the writers before the restoration, whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled."23

But for all his fondness of Spenser, Johnson saw the same problems as his contemporaries, and they produced in him the same tensions. He refused, however, to let a priori notions of periodization direct his reading. His comment on the object of critical inquiry is well known: "It is ... the task of criticism to establish principles; to improve opinion into knowledge."24 This task includes rendering the past intelligible by building historical narratives. But though the rules and schemata have their place, the empiricist critic25 must also

distinguish those means of pleasing which depend upon known causes and rational deduction, from the nameless and inexplicable elegancies ... which may well be termed the enchantresses of the soul. Criticism reduces those regions of literature under the dominion of science, which have hitherto known only the anarchy of ignorance, the caprices of fancy, and the tyranny of prescription.26
Johnson wants, where possible, to explain away the "enchantresses of the soul" by annexing their territory into the realm of literary history, but he recognizes -- perhaps uncomfortably -- that some authors cannot, and should not, be subdued. Guarding against "the tyranny of prescription," therefore, is as important as reducing literature to rules.
Of the three categories considered above -- design, allegory, and language -- Johnson says nothing about Spenser's design, but we can speculate on his opinion. Though he was instrumental in removing the unities of time and place from English criticism, he preserved one Neoclassical unity -- "nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action"27 -- and here Spenser is manifestly deficient. But up rises Johnson's empiricism: "Since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased,"28 and this critical honesty accounts for his fondness for Medieval romances.29

This honesty accounts for many of his departures from the taste of his age. Though allegory was widely condemned, Spenser the allegorist was dear to Johnson. Boswell notes that he "praised John Bunyan highly," and that Johnson said "There is reason to think that he had read Spenser."30 His own allegorical writings owe much to Spenser; the personified Truth and Falsehood of Rambler 96, for instance, and "the 'Gulph of Intemperance,' a dreadful whirlpool, interspersed with rocks"31 in Rambler 102 echo specific passages in The Faerie Queene. His Vision of Theodore is especially reminiscent of Spenser's allegory, while the title of his never-completed "Palace of Sloth, -- a vision" has an unmistakable Spenserian ring.32

Language is a more considerable problem than design or allegory. No party-line ancient or modern, Johnson considers language neither degenerative nor progressive, but he does see in it a kind of development or trajectory: "Every language has a time of rudeness antecedent to perfection, as well as of false refinement and declension."33 This is not historical relativism but its opposite; it suggests a trans-historical linguistic ideal, an ideal to which ages succeed or fail in attaining. The Renaissance marks the beginning of this linguistic perfection.

Johnson's concern for this ideal made him uneasy at seeing "the imitation of Spenser ... likely to gain upon the age,"34 and Spenser's unmusical stanza and versification were especially loathsome: the imitators

seem to conclude, that when they have disfigured their lines with a few obsolete syllables, they have accomplished their design. ... Perhaps ... the stile of Spenser might by long labour be justly copied; but life is surely given us for higher purposes than to gather what our ancestors have wisely thrown away.35
Johnson here is able to "conside[r] the metrical art simply as a science,"36 a positivist science in which the clear failures of the past should be abandoned, and in which modern poets can advance by degrees beyond their precursors.

Johnson also faults Spenser's diction, which he, like Ben Jonson, found to be "no language."37 The Shepheardes Calender draws Johnson's scorn for its "obsolete terms and rustick words, which they very learnedly call Dorick";38 this "studied barbarity" calls forth Johnson's most devastating sarcasm: "Surely at the same time that a shepherd learns theology," he writes acidly, "he may gain some acquaintance with his native language."39 Johnson's dismissal of Spenser's archaism shows the critical tension Johnson felt at discovering major failings in a major poet, a poet who could not be rescued from "the nameless and inexplicable elegancies which appeal wholly to the fancy." It shows, in short, the limits of systematic criticism.

That Spenser could draw both the highest approbation and the most stinging sarcasm leads us to seek Johnson's particular notion of the Renaissance, one that admits Spenserian allegory but not Spenser's language. A candidate for the kind of progress he saw in the Renaissance appears throughout his works; one especially clear statement comes in his praise of Homer:

His positions are general, and his representations natural, with very little dependence on local or temporary customs, on those changeable scenes of artificial life, which, by mingling original with accidental notions, and crowding the mind with images which time effaces, produce ambiguity in diction, and obscurity in books. To this open display of unadulterated nature it must be ascribed, that Homer has fewer passages of doubtful meaning than any other poet either in the learned or in modern languages.40
Here is one of Johnson's favorite pairs of polar opposites, generality versus "accident," and I suggest Johnson saw the Renaissance as Europe's passage from one pole to the other. Faux Medieval diction is a recollection of the "remote allusions and obscure opinions"41 of a justly forgotten age. These are Johnson's targets in his attacks on Spenser's obfuscatory archaism, which leads only to "obscurity in books," and which time justly "effaces."

Generality and "unadulterated nature," on the other hand, are dissociated from "changeable scenes of artificial life" with their "accidental notions" -- the very business of allegory, which works by moving from the specific to the general. Allegory educates us in generality, teaching us not to depend on the "local and temporary customs" of the Middle Ages. The "revival of learning" amounts to the revival of general nature, the nature that appears in Shakespeare at his most "universal."

The Renaissance is therefore Europe's maturity, its accession to general nature, its abandonment of the peculiarities of archaism. But even the most mature literature has room for the generality of allegory, the bridge between the details consigned to antiquarians and the universal nature valuable to every reader, just as the Renaissance is the bridge between darkness and light. Spenser more than any other poet is the wedge that splits allegory from archaism, and forces Johnson's empirical criticism to come to terms with Renaissance poetic progress.


1. These critics include Margreta DeGrazia, Jonathan Bate, and David Perkins; Perkins goes so far as to ask Is Literary History Possible? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992).

2. One of Johnson's earliest surviving letters (1735) requests that his copies of Spenser be sent to him (The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. Bruce Redford, 5 vols. [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992-94], I, 7-8). See also Johnsonian Gleanings, ed. Aleyn Lyell Reade, 11 vols. (London: Francis, 1909-52), V, 27-28, 224.

3. Treatments of eighteenth-century Spenserianism are few. The most recent and thorough is Greg Kucich, Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 11-64; it should be supplemented by Earl R. Wasserman, Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1947); Arthur Johnston, Enchanted Ground: The Study of Medieval Romance in the Eighteenth Century (London: Athlone Press, 1964); Herbert F. Tucker, Jr., "Spenser's Eighteenth-Century Readers and the Question of Unity in The Faerie Queene," University of Toronto Quarterly, 46 (1977), 322-41; and Richard C. Frushell, "Spenser and the Eighteenth-Century Schools," Spenser Studies, 7 (1986), 175-98. Spenser: The Critical Heritage, ed. R. M. Cummings (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), includes some coverage of the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Johnson's own interest in the Renaissance generally and Spenser in particular is discussed in Watkins (above); Maxine Turnage, "Samuel Johnson's Criticism of the Works of Edmund Spenser," Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 10 (1970), 557-67; and Eithne Henson, "The Fictions of Romantick Chivalry": Samuel Johnson and Romance (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1992). On eighteenth-century periodization generally, see Lawrence Lipking, The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970).

4. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64), IV, 382.

5. Plan of the Dictionary, in The Works of Samuel Johnson (Oxford, 1825), V, 18.

6. Spectator 419; The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), III, 572.

7. William Winstanley, The Lives of the Most Famous English Poets, or, The Honour of Parnassus (London, 1687), p. 18.

8. Winstanley, pp. 25-26.

9. Winstanley, p. 42.

10. Winstanley, p. 43.

11. See Tucker, "Spenser's Eighteenth-Century Readers and the Question of Unity in The Faerie Queene," passim.

12. See especially the debates between the partisans of Ariosto and those of Tasso in the standard English discussion of Italian Renaissance criticism, Bernard Weinberg's History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961).

13. The Rambler, ed. Walter Jackson Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, in the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), III, 203.

14. The Works of Mr. Edmund Spenser, ed. John Hughes, 6 vols. (London, 1715), I, lxi.

15. Thomas Rymer, The Tragedies of the Last Age Consider'd and Examin'd by the Practice of the Ancients (London, 1678), p. 142.

16. Hughes, I, lx-lxi.

17. Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755), sig. C1r.

18. Yale Works, VII, 82. See also the Dedication to Shakespeare Illustrated, in Yale Works, VII, 49.

19. Preface to the Dictionary, sig. C1r.

20. Watkins asserts "few men have known Spenser more thoroughly than Johnson" (p. 66).

21. Idler 91, in Yale Works, II, 282.

22. Turnage counts 2,878 quotations in the entire Dictionary (p. 559). By Lewis Freed's count, Spenser appears 1,546 times in the first volume of the Dictionary, compared with Shakespeare's 8,694, Dryden's 5,627, Milton's 2,733, and Pope's 2,108: see W. K. Wimsatt, Philosophic Words: A Study of Style and Meaning in the "Rambler" and "Dictionary" of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1948), p. 34n.

23. Preface to the Dictionary, sig. C1r.

24. Rambler 92; Yale Works, IV, 122.

25. Jean Hagstrum's study of Johnson's criticism is the locus classicus for Johnson-as-empiricist: see Samuel Johnson's Literary Criticism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 3-20 et passim. Leopold Damrosch develops this insight at greater length in The Uses of Johnson's Criticism (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1976). For a corrective of what he sees as some of the excesses of the "empiricist school," see Charles H. Hinnant, "Steel for the Mind": Samuel Johnson and Critical Discourse (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1994), esp. pp. 3-18.

26. Rambler 92; Yale Works, IV, 122.

27. "Preface to Shakespeare," Yale Works, VII, 79.

28. The Life of Milton, in The Lives of the Poets, ed. G. B. Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), I, 175.

29. See Henson, p. 19 and passim.

30. Life, II, 238.

31. Rambler 102; Yale Works, IV, 182.

32. Life, IV, 382.

33. Preface to the Dictionary, sig. C1r.

34. Rambler 121; Yale Works, IV, 285.

35. Rambler 121; Yale Works, IV, 285-86.

36. Life of Dryden, Lives, I, 468.

37. See Rambler 121; Yale Works, IV, 285. Johnson quotes Jonson's criticism in the Dictionary, s.v. affecting, def. 7, and applies it to Milton in the Life of Milton, Lives, I, 190.

38. Rambler 37; Yale Works, III, 202.

39. Yale Works, III, 203.

40. Lives, III, 14.

41. Life of Milton, Lives, I, 163.